Greetings Students and Families,

In this two-part series, I’ll be talking about the content and format of the SAT I and the ACT — potentially required elements of your college applications.

Although both the College Board and ACT organizations schedule exam dates throughout the year, summer break is a time that test preparation begins in earnest for many teens. There’s even a healthy amount of angst over how to prepare for these tests as well as what’s required for colleges applications on your radar.

SAT and ACT - Prepare for College Appilcations

As a college counselor, I advise my sophomores (2022) and juniors (2021) to dedicate a part of the summer to begin preparation for the required tests that are a part of your college applications.  This two-part series will give you a heads-up on the exam format.

SAT vs ACT – What Exams are Required for My College Application?

In  COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PLANNING TIPS: TESTING – SAT ACT SUBJECT TESTS AP – WHAT’S REQUIRED  , I discussed the variety of exams that may be required for your college applications. I also noted that your college counselor should would assist you in creating an appropriate testing schedule as part of your college admissions plan.  Your college counselor should work closely with your SAT/ACT tutor to coordinate your exam dates creating a testing schedule that leaves you ready and prepared for all your required exams.  TIMING IS EVERYTHING!

Some of the circumstances I discussed in my earlier blog include testing accommodations, sufficient math preparation and how the SATII subject tests that may be required by colleges on your radar are scheduled on the same dates as the SAT 1 (suggesting an ACT is preferred or a fall/winter SAT schedule).

Before jumping into the SAT exam format (and in a separate blog – I discuss the ACT format), I’d like to remove some of the stress you might be facing and redirect you to a website FAIR TEST listing colleges that place less emphasis on the SAT/ACT.   There are also many test-optional and test flexible universities.  Test flexible campuses allow the student to replace the SAT/ACT with subject based exams including SAT II Subject Tests and AP exams.  DON’T WORRY! There are now more than 1000 Accredited Colleges and Universities  DE-EMPHASIZING ACT/SAT Scores to Admit Substantial Numbers of Students into Bachelor-Degree Programs.   

In my video, you’ll learn a bit more about the types of required standardized testing

Understanding more about each testing format can help you and your college advisor determine which test format is best for you and you can begin your test preparation.


The College Board’s SAT is comprised of two sections: 1) Mathematics and 2) Reading & Writing.  There is also an optional essay section that is required by some colleges.  If you haven’t yet finalized your college list of best “fit” universities, and don’t know if the essay will be a required element of your college application to a particular university, I strongly recommend taking the essay section with each sitting of the exam. The multiple-choice section of the exam format is three-hours long.  There are scheduled rest-breaks between each section.

Reading & Writing
The complete SAT exam  format is described here in the College Board’s Summary of testing requirements and in their detailed 210 Page PDF.  I’ll boil it down for you!

The “Reading and Writing” section –also known as the “Language” section –contains 52 questions leaving you with 75 seconds to answer each reading question.  In addition to interpretation of written passages, the SAT reading section includes interpretation of graphs or charts.

The passages include a variety of real-world situations that test-takers are expected to analyze and address the actual content. Students should expect that there will be at least one “founding document”—certainly something that would be encountered in classes covering a range of classical and contemporary historical documents or speeches (Abraham Lincoln, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Dr. King). The science section is designed to capture “culturally relevant” content. A recent title “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.”

Many of my students comment (complain) that there isn’t enough time and students contemplate whether it might be more effective to read less closely and aim to “speed read”. The short answer- is absolutely not! This is one area that the SAT differs from the ACT—with 75 seconds per reading question on the SAT and roughly 52 seconds per question on the ACT, speed reading in either format is dangerous. Even with more time per question, most experts agree that SAT passages are more challenging than those of the ACT. Analysis of the “founding documents” indicates that SAT questions are typically less contemporary often including historical documents much earlier in time.

In contrast to the Reading section, the Writing section includes non-fiction content- including narratives of actual events or information about a specific topic.  Passages are provided and students are tested about grammar, vocabulary and language errors. The student “edits” the passages to convey the level of understanding of language.

The best preparation for this section of the exam comes from regular reading. As a college advisor with thirty years of experience as a Professor, I continue to encourage students throughout middle and high school to read read and read—beyond assigned work.  Exploring the logical flow, sentence structure, and choice of vocabulary across a wide range of published fiction and non-fiction work, even  including popular periodicals –can develop the ease of language that is being tested in this section of the exam.  Reading is also part of the process of discovery and allows young adults to engage more effectively and thing outside-the-box with confidence in a variety of professional, academic and personal settings.

The SAT’s Writing section aims to measure student’s abilities in: 1) English conventions, 2) analysis in history and science, 3) expression of ideas, 4) words in context, and 5) command of evidence. These are the fundamental concepts essential to preparing written pieces that convey a clear point effectively.

The Math section of the SAT is also designed to reflect test-takers ability to process “real world” problems. There are three main sections. The first section, “Algebra”, includes questions on linear equations and inequalities.  The second section on “problem solving and data analysis” measures a student’s understanding of proportional relationships and ratio.  The final piece of the math section presents the concepts that must be mastered for a student to “advance to higher level courses.”

This is why it’s essential that your SAT/ACT tutor coordinate your testing schedule with your college counselor. Clearly, taking the SAT too early in high school can create a situation where the math curriculum simply hasn’t yet covered the concepts a student will have encountered and mastered. For this reason, I urge students to wait until Algebra II has been completed and mastered.


For starters, please change your batteries!  A fresh vibrant screen display is actually a reality when your batteries are changed at least once a year.  I encourage students to haul two calculators into the test- because – “Stuff happens”!

The math section has two types of questions – those that allow for a calculator and those that do not (25 minutes of the exam).  There are tons of “calculator hacks” noted on the internet and your SAT/ACT math tutor should show you a few!

Like the reading section, the mathematics section of the SAT is also a multiple-choice exam.   Another important component are the “grid-in” questions—these are a series of questions answered in a grid with numerals including whole numbers, decimals, or fractions.

Stay tuned—my next blog will explore the ACT!

 Do you know what exams are required?  Do you know when to prepare and when to best take your exams (SAT, ACT, SATII Subject tests, IB, AP, AICE)?

Does your student have an Educational & College Admissions Plan? Are you on target?


My students include aspiring STEM, Business, Pre-Med, Pre-Law, Visual & Performing Arts & Humanities majors. I provide college counseling in-person in Boca Raton, Florida and online throughout the US – working with students across all academic levels. Whether your dream college includes your state public flagship including the University of Florida or the University of Michigan , or you’re aiming for an Ivy League or a small liberal arts college, every student should have a college plan aiming towards universities that are the “right fit” for you.  Learn more and schedule your Educational and College Admissions Planning Assessment– Build your COLLEGE PLAN TODAY!
Bonnie Rabin, PhD
Professor Emeritus
Cornell University Florida Alumni Rep.
Educational & College Admissions Consultant

30+ Years Experience

College Admissions Assistance & Academic Advising
Serving Clients In-Person in South Florida & Remotely Nationwide
561.509.0021  or  833-MY-ESSAY